An Interview with Photographer and Writer Michael Freeman

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I’ve always admired Michael Freeman for the sheer quality of his photographic instruction books. He’s also a great photographer and photojournalist in his own right. One of his recently completed projects is a book on the Sudan, an undertaking two years in the making.

Photo by Michael Freeman

Athens, Greece

Interview

You’ve written or photographed a staggering 102 books so far in your career.  How did it start? What was your first book and how did you get involved in the project?

Yes, I was a bit shocked myself when I counted them. In fact, I’d lost track, but because a publisher wanted that tidbit of information, a few months ago I just counted them up on Amazon. There are two kinds of book mixed together in that number: those that are principally photographic, what most people call ‘coffee table’ books (although that seems to carry connotations of being rather trivial), and a completely different set, about the practice of photography. My first book as a title-credited photographer was on Athens, in a series published by Time-Life called ‘The World’s Great Cities’, in 1978.

It was Time-Life who had given me my break into photography several years earlier – a story too long to go into here, but which involved my taking a sabbatical from the advertising agency I worked for, buying two secondhand Hasselblads and travelling up the Amazon for three months, having an exhibition at the Brazilian Embassy, Time-Life borrowing some of the pictures and then using them for the cover, intro spreads and chapter openers in their first book published in the UK (I resigned from the ad agency the day after I found that out).

I did quite a lot of small jobs for Time-Life when I started as a photographer, but the big thing was to get a complete book assignment. This was far from easy, as Time-Life were assigning all the big names, Magnum photographers, Jay Maisel, Pete Turner and so on. I finally got my break when the first assignment photographer for the Athens book failed to deliver a satisfactory take. The series was already in roll-out, which meant there were immutable deadlines, and this one was urgent. So they sent me off for two weeks to see how I well I could manage. It worked, and after a week back in London they sent me back once more to Athens to complete.
Photo portrait of Michael Freeman
You’ve written over 40 instructional books on photography. Tell us a little about the production of an educational photography book. Do you come up with the concepts yourself and suggest them to a publisher, or are you usually approached by a publisher to write a book concept they’ve come up with?

I all began with Quarto, then a small book packager, now a multi-national publishing company. I was doing odd jobs for them. One day, the editorial director told me that they wanted to do an instructional book on photoraphy. “You’re reasonably literate,” he said, “Why don’t you write it.” So I did, and it went on the sell three-quarters of a million copies, thanks to their never-ending sales effort.

Well, I quite enjoyed that, and every time they wanted a new book written about photography, they asked me. In fact, there have been two iterations of instructional books on photography. The first was in the ‘80s, and was obviously film-based.

Things went quiet for a decade, and then started up again with a vengeance in around 2000, with the arrival of digital. Most of the book titles are on demand from the publisher, and the main publisher of my books in the US is Lark, who are part of Sterling, who are part of Barnes & Noble. They have tremendous retail publishing clout, and with the US being the biggest market in the world, they are the ones who normally suggest.

An exception to this was my ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ last year. Many years ago I wrote a book called ‘The Image’, mainly about composition in photography, a subject that has usually been given short shrift. It went out of print, as happens, but I had always had a soft spot for it and thought I could do a better update of it now. Then I kept getting emails from people who wanted to find a copy, and after a while emails saying that the second-hand price on Amazon of US$300 was too much for them. $300! It became a collector’s item, and the worst part was hat I had only one copy myself, so I couldn’t even cash in on the rarity!

Even so, for some reason it took ages to convince a publisher to go with the new revamped version. Finally, Focal Press took it, with some reservations, I felt. But it’s gone on to be a great success, keeps selling out and being reprinted, and now in several languages. So, I have a few more ideas I’m pursuing, but the main problem is that I’m being hounded to deliver several other titles as well. In fact, I’m spending too much time on these instructional books. My plan in the old days was to do spend no more than  quarter of my time on them – on aircraft and in hotel rooms, basically. But now they’re in danger of taking over from real photography, which is my current worry.

What’s the process for your ‘coffee table’ style books? Is it the same?

No, not really. It’s a mixture of pressing my interests and dealing with editors’ needs. My main UK publisher, Thames & Hudson, are mainly interested in modern design and architecture, and that’s one of my interests, so it’s a match. Getting books closer to my heart and further from theirs is much more of an effort – Spirit of Asia, for example, which was about sacred places in the Far East. But I’m persistent, as you need to be. Sudan was the most difficult, but peeking ahead I see you have some questions about that specifically further down the page.

What advice would you give a writer or photographer who would like to break into book publishing, both writing educational books and producing coffee table type books?

My knee-jerk reaction to breaking into instructional photography books is ‘DON’T’. Not on competitive grounds, which you might think would be my natural reaction, but because there are hundreds of books out there, most of them pathetic and written by people who are not professional photographers.

Yes, I’m being harsh and arrogant here, especially as I had the nerve to write a book when I was quite a callow photographer, but really, what is the point in somoene whose experience is limited to an obssessive nerdiness in Photoshop bothering to write anything at all? So much is just badly stirred recycled technical stuff.

On photography, I’m not interested in anyone’s opinion unless they are a photographer – I’m not even interested in Roland Barthes’ musings, and less so in curators’ notes. Relatively few real photographers have written or been interviewed with any attempt at being meaningful about their work, but when they have, they are invaluable. If you want a reading list, start with Ansel Adams, Don McCullin, Cartier-Bresson, Galen Rowell.

Large-format illustrated books are another matter. The reason I do so many, and put most of my photographic effort into books is that they can be big, long and substantial. Big enough to spend at least a year shooting, to build up a body of work on a single theme, and not get thrown into the waste bin at the end of the month.

Magazine work is more urgent and has more edge, but books are more like movies; they develop a life of their own, and the sequencing of images on pages has its own flow and character. My advice to a photographer wanting to break in is reasonably positive – book publishers actually need ideas, because their sales forces have shelf space to fill.

You first should have a good, solid idea that is suffciently focused to make a book title. Make a well thought-through proposal on one side of one sheet of paper, and add to it examples of your photography that will convince an editor that you can fulfil. Some form of dummy -  a number of specimen spreads – make an even better argument.

Look in bookshops to find the publishers who do this size and spec of book and who look like they would be interested in your subject. Then make an appointment; you’ll usually get an interview, much more easily than with a magazine picture editor. I wouldn’t recommend large-format illustrated books to writers, by the way, as the text always gets second billing. One reason why I write the accompanying text for many of my book projects is the sheer difficulty of getting good writers to subordinate their text to photographs.

Sudan – The Land and the People

How did you become involved in the project?

I was staying in Washington with two old friends from our time in Cambodia and Thailand, Tim Carney and Vicki Butler. Tim was the last US Ambassador to Sudan, and since retirement had been vocal in his disagreement with US policy in the region. The two of them (Vicki’s a writer and journalist) felt they had unfinished business with getting some kind of political understanding about Sudan, and Vicki decided that a big book would be the ideal vehicle.

So we talked about it over dinner, they asked if I’d be interested (I knew next to nothing about Africa), and I said yes, sure, let’s do it. So we did. Of course, the effort it took to get the project off the ground was huge, not least because of total lack of publisher interest in the project. I remember shortly afterwards having lunch with another old friend who is the publisher of one of the largest companies in the US.

We had some other book projects on, and I told him about the Sudan project. He was blunt, “No-one’s going to buy that in America,” he said, “but we’ll print it for you if you want.” Well, thanks for the tip! But in fairness to him, it’s a natural response if you’re in a business with very tight margins. It meant that we had to raise the money ourselves. Or rather that Vicki had to do the fund-raising, at which she turned out to be brilliant, but it got very frustrating.

The access and political side of things went much more smoothly, because Tim had been well-liked and respected by both sides, Khartoum and the South. We got full endorsement from the vice-president in Khartoum, Ali Osman Taha, and from John Garang in the South, so it became in its own little way one of the few cross-line projects in Sudan.

There was a cease-fire going when we started, and we continued shooting over the three years it took to reach the signing of the peace prototcols. Unfortunately, Darfur broke out a year into the project and killings began again. Darfur, which during that period I also shot for American Vogue, is huge and largely empty, without infrastructure, which meant that all these killings would happen way across the desert, and all that got to be reported was aftermath and refugee camps.

How do you work on a story like this? How much help do did you need in Sudan from your publisher, NGOs, and other contacts or organisations?

We were our own publisher, in effect, so it was a bootstrap operation. Tim and Vicki pulled in all the contacts they had, and we spent a long time making presentations to all kinds of people, potential sponsors, government, local government, military. One thing we could not accept from the Khartoum government was money, of course. The NGOs were a huge help, and there were many of them. They housed and fed us when we were on several trips into the field.

In terms of logistics, we decided just to keep on shooting and travelling as long as it took, until we were all satisfied that we had a full book that told the story we wanted. That’s one of the great luxuries of working for yourself. I shot for 21 weeks, spread over 6 trips over a period of three years. But it was also a stop-go race between spending money on trips and getting money from sponsors.

There was one trip that Tim and I made that drove Vicki wild. We wanted to get to the Boma Plateau in the southeast, next to Ethiopia. Very remote, essentially unvisited by westerners for two decades, and the only way to get there was to hire an aircraft out of Nairobi for ten days. That was expensive, as we had to keep it at the airfield at Lokichokio,  just inside Kenya; no way for it to overnight in Sudan. $20,000, in fact, so as it was our own money I felt more than usually responsible for justifying it in images.

As we were approachng the Boma airstrip, at the foot of the plateau, I saw the tip of this strange peak on the plateau itself, so asked the pilot to circle it. That was fine, but when we landed, the local SPLA military commander was apopleptic. We didn’t have permission, who did we think we were, and so on, not to mention that they had anti-aircraft batteries up there and it was only because they could see a Kenyan registration on the white fuselage that they hadn’t done to us what they had to the Sudanese plane shot up and crashed near the end of the runway. Ah yes, he did have a point there.

So we were confined to the commander’s compound and it didn’t look like we were going to be allowed out. We sat outside our thatched hut, bored out of our minds. I said, “Well, at least we’ve got one shot, of that rock.” “Yes,” Tim replied, “but it’s cost $20,000!” The next day we were allowed out, and taken towards the village. On the way we passed a compound where some women were pounding maize, which I kind of fancied as a shot, and seeing my interest, our minder said, “Do you want to take some pictures?” Yes we did! That worked, and as we left, I just remarked quietly to Tim, “$10,000!” After that, each time I got a a shot that I thought would make it into the book, I revised the average, which was the cost-per-shot. When we got back, Vicki still  wasn’t amused.

How did you make initial contact with the subjects of your photos? How did you get so closely involved with them, and how did you overcome any initial distrust or hostility that they may have had towards you?

We always had minders, provided by whichever command we were under. In particular, in the North we had a great guy from the security services who was really good. Never once was I stopped from shooting, and never once was a shot suggested to me. But we still needed to explain ourselves to local people, endlessly. In the North we often needed translation, as neither Tim nor I had more than a few polite expressions in Arabic, but the lingua franca over much of the South is English.

There were occasions of suspicion, certainly, but you learn to anticipate that. Tim and I had an agreement that I would do photography and he would do political, which in practice meant that I could push it as far as I liked, but if the situation tipped over into difficult, he would take over and I would just shut up. One very useful weapon was the laptop, because I would download at the end of each day. Then, when we had drivers and helpers, we’d do a little session of ‘dailies’ in the evening, so that everyone could see what we were doing and feel a part of the project themselves.

That worked very well. There was on driver in particular, Hussein, who had no English whatsoever, so our means of communication was the pictures. He and I got on wonderfully, because we both knew how the take on each trip was building up. He was very sharp, and began taking me to places and showing me things that he thought I might be able to shoot, based purely on his knowledge of the pictures so far.

What hardships, difficulties and dangers did you face in the Sudan? How did you overcome them? What was it like travelling and working in places that only a short time ago were conflict zones?

When you have physical discomfort, that’s just part of the job, and you make up for it at the end. For the usual dangers you do risk assessment, which is like due diligence in corporate life. You collect the information from as many sources as possible, decide on the level of risk attached to any particular shot or side-trip, and make your decision accordingly. It’s like crossing the road, same kind of thought process.

We had very few situations that I would have called dangerous. It’s always more difficult to get into trouble than most people imagine. Local military and police don’t want you to get into trouble – at least, not on their watch. Too much paperwork! I think local knowledge and help is key.

What were the people like? How approachable were they and how open to being photographed?

It did vary, but on the whole fine, as long as we paid close attention to reactions. If you stay alert, you can tell when people are coming uncomfortable, and it was very good to have Tim watching my back. He’s the consummate political field officer. In any form of documentary photography you play the situation according to how you read it and how you like to shoot. So it could be with eye contact one moment and fly-on-the-wall the next. And when you have a busy, eventful scene going on, like a wedding or a market, when people are too busy to pay you much attenton as a photographer, you just work fast and non-stop.

How does shooting a story like this affect you personally? How much do you get involved with the lives of the people you meet? What are the personal rewards that you gain from an assignment like this?

It does affect you, SHOULD affect you, because you need to engage with the people you’re spending time with and shooting. I loved it, because it was way out of my usual range (which is Asia). Sudan is, in any case, a special place. Africa’s largest country, hundreds of different ethnic groups. A project like this is why I take photographs, and I can immerse myself in it.

It’s interesting that there are two things going on at the same time in a long, exotic shoot like this. One is the body of work that you are building up, day by day, which is very satisfying. But the other is the life you lead as a photographer, travellling and learning new things. Every experience is something that adds to your own life.

Oh, and after all the publishing difficulties, we did raise the money, got an excellent production, and at that point publishers were happy to take the book on (because they didn’t have any financial risk themselves). And the book sold very well, including an Arabic edition which we felt honour-bound to do (that’s no easy job, as the entire book has to be laid out afresh, from right to left). And last but not least, we have made some very good Sudanese friends, and that’s priceless.

Contact Details

Michael Freeman
4 Callcott Street
London W8 7SU

Email: Michaelhfreeman [at] btinternet [dot] com

Michael Freeman’s website, with more information about his books and his stock photography: http://michaelfreemanphoto.com

And for anyone serious about a photographic education, even to degree level if you have the ambition, go to the following site….

http://www.oca-uk.com/courses/photography

Books

Search Michael’s books at Amazon USA

Search Michael’s books at Amazon UK

We’re selling the last few hundred copies of the book ‘Sudan – The Land and the People’ online at the following site…

http://www.marquand.com/index.php?page=book&bookID=5&type=intro

Photo Gallery

The following photos were all taken in the Sudan:

Photo by Michael Freeman

Photo by Michael Freeman

Photo by Michael Freeman

Photo by Michael Freeman

Photo by Michael Freeman

Photo by Michael Freeman

Photo by Michael Freeman

All photos Copyright Michael Freeman. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.

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